Today at The Drunkard’s Almanac we’ll be mixing Grog. And we’re going to specify a British Navy Grog, what they drank in the Royal Navy. You see, July 31 is Black Tot Day, the birthday of the ominous day that the Royal Navy ceased handing out rum rations, or tots. This was something that had been going on since the 17th century, only ending in 1970. Not surprisingly, when fueled by rum the Royal Navy was the most powerful armada in the world for a couple of hundred years.
The Rum Ration
Not that they were new to drinking. Potable water was scarce in those days and not well suited to being stored in wood barrels on ship. That made booze the obvious solution, so the Royal Navy carried alcohol since the fleets first set sail. Just as it was for the Ancient Mariner, “Water, water everywhere / Nor any drop to drink”. They tried beer, but this didn’t work well due to the large quantity of liquid to be stored. Spirits were the obvious choice.
As the focus on the high seas turned toward the Caribbean in the early 17th century a new spirit – rum – emerged and the Royal Navy began providing rum as far back as 1655. As Winston Churchill allegedly once said, the traditions of the Royal Navy were “rum, sodomy, and the lash”. By the 18th century each sailor was issued about 10 ounces daily of barrel strength rum (about 75% ABV). Gin was favored by the officers, but that is a subject for another column. No wonder they ruled the seas.
While the rum was originally issued neat, the legend suggests sailors would “prove” its strength. This involved checking that gunpowder doused with their ration would still ignite. This led to “Navy Strength” becoming part of the drinking vocabulary.
The History of Grog
It seems a few bad apples got a bit drunk and created problems. As a result Admiral Edward Vernon (known as Old Grog because of his grogram cloak) mandated the practice of diluting rum with water in a 1:4 ratio and splitting the ration into two servings each day. In 1795 the Navy required adding lemon or lime juice to prevent scurvy.
This proceeded well, but the real fun was over when the ration was cut in half in 1823 and in half again in 1850. That is what became considered the traditional amount of one-eighth Imperial pint at 54.6% ABV, distributed midday.
Unfortunately, in 1969 the Admiralty Board issued a written answer to a question from Parliament and concluded that the rum ration is no longer compatible with “the high standards of efficiency required now.” That led to a debate in the House of Commons, now referred to as the “Great Rum Debate” and the end was near. Black Tot Day followed on July 31, 1970.
How To Make Grog
So what do we drink in recognition of this dark event? Clearly a Grog is required, but we’re not going with one of the complex tiki recipes by that name. No indeed, the Drink of the Day is just how they did it in the Royal Navy. The only difference is we use ice and add it to our list of rum cocktails.
The basic formula for a Grog is simply rum diluted with water. And, in fact, that is how it was served for many years onboard Royal Navy ships. The rum, of course, was Navy Strength, i.e. high proof. As time went on and the value of citrus juice in preventing scurvy became apparent it got added to the mix. So dark rum, citrus juice and some water is the basic formula. Sometimes additional seasonings were added. In the Royal Navy it was typical to use lemon juice and some cinnamon. Our recipe adds a bit of simple syrup to create something better balanced than citrus alone.
Pusser’s Rum was the official rum of the Royal Navy. You can, in fact, find their official rum labeled as “gunpowder proof.” Great if you do, but that’s not really required unless you have cannons at home. You can use whatever brand of rum you have available, but a dark rum is highly recommended.
And by the way, if you would like to mix up something else with Pusser’s Rum we’d recommend the Painkiller.
- Old Fashioned Glass
- 1 ½ oz Rum Pussers was the official brand employed by the Royal Navy, but any other aged rum will do.
- ½ oz Fresh lime juice
- 1 oz Simple syrup
- 1 oz Water Preferably not from a fetid barrel of the stuff onboard ship.
- Combine all ingredients over ice in glass.
- Stir vigorously.
- Ask the Bosun to call "Up Spirits!"
- Reply "Stand fast the Holy Ghost!"
- Drink rapidly and repeatedly.